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Early voting numbers show sharp increase from last off-year, midterm elections

Increase indicative of greater voter engagement, ease of absentee and early voting

<p>Students living on Grounds will vote at Slaughter Recreation Center in Virginia’s Fifth congressional district which saw 16,394 ballots submitted by Oct. 30, up from 8,006 at the same time last year.</p>

Students living on Grounds will vote at Slaughter Recreation Center in Virginia’s Fifth congressional district which saw 16,394 ballots submitted by Oct. 30, up from 8,006 at the same time last year.

Virginia has seen a 104.6 percent increase in the number of returned absentee ballots as compared to this time in last year's gubernatorial election, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, as of Oct. 30. Over 200,000 ballots have been cast so far, eclipsing the 123,221 absentee ballots which were submitted statewide in the 2014 midterms. Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District also saw a notable increase in ballots with 16,394 ballots submitted by Oct. 30, up from 8,006 at the same time last year.

The district is currently locked in a tight race between Democratic candidate Leslie Cockburn and Republican candidate Denver Riggleman while voters statewide are facing a Senate contest between incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine and Republican candidate Corey Stewart.  

Some have speculated that this trend — which has also been observed in increased early voting numbers for other states such as Texas and North Carolina — may indicate a higher election turnout overall. 

“There's generally a lot of voter interest in this election,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor for Sabato's Crystal Ball and director of communications for the Center for Politics. “That turnout which was very low in many places in 2014 is probably going to be on the higher end for a midterm.”

Over the course of the past year, some campaigns have witnessed surges in voter engagement in the form of volunteering and attending campaign events. In part, increases in early voting could be the result of greater enthusiasm for current candidates’ campaign platforms.

“Even between two months ago and four months ago, it’s like night and day, the kind of engagement we’re getting,” said Cooper Patterson, communications director for Cockburn’s campaign. “The engagement online, the engagement with volunteering, and there’s people reading, asking questions, attending events — Independents, Republicans, Democrats alike.”

The Riggleman campaign has also responded positively to the increase in early voting in the district. Joe Chelak, campaign manager for the Riggleman campaign, also acknowledged in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily the tendency of the Fifth District to vote Republican in congressional elections, regardless of high or low voter turnout.

“We are happy to see an increase in early voting and absentee ballot requests,” Chelak said. “This is a district that has voted for the Republican in both high turnout and low turnout elections.”

According to Kondik, other factors may also play a role in increased voter engagement, such as which party has control of the White House.

“What you see in the midterm environment is that the party that doesn't hold the White House usually gets pretty engaged,” Kondik said. “Republican engagement has remained high, so if Republicans are voting at a high rate and Democrats are voting at a significantly higher rate than in 2014, then that would be suggestive of a higher turnout environment overall.”

Kondik also acknowledged that increased early voting may be the result of individuals who typically vote on Election Day choosing instead to vote early, rather than a surge in more voters participating in the election.

“Another thing that's important to remember about the use of early absentee ballot voting in Virginia or otherwise is that I think it's just generally becoming a more popular thing,” Kondik said. “Some of what is going on is probably just a cannibalization of typical Election Day voters voting early, so I wouldn't take the early voting and necessarily say it would be predictive of some sort of gigantic mega turnout.” 

Early and absentee voting has become more common throughout elections in the past decade. In 2016, the number of voters who voted early, absentee or by mail grew to over 57 million people, accounted for approximately two-fifths of all ballots cast that year and more than doubled the 24.9 million who had done the same in 2004. 

Even if the early voting numbers indicate higher voter turnout, many say it is unlikely to predict election results. 

“Historically, turnout has not been a predictor of party fortunes,” Kondik said. “Democrats don't necessarily do better when turnout is better, Republicans don't necessarily do better when turnout is better.” 

In Virginia’s Fifth District, the Cockburn campaign has not given too much gravity to the absentee numbers.

“It’s probably too early to tell, the only numbers we really care about are on election day, so the final vote counts,” Patterson said. “But this definitely foretells a higher turnout across the board, so it’ll likely be a surge in turnout that we haven’t seen in quite some time.”


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